New Web Project
Espouses 'Strong' Atheism
François Tremblay

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From: "Positive Atheism" <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: "Francois Tremblay"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: August 16, 2004 12:48

François,

It is good to hear from you again!

I agree that the online atheistic communities are in dire need of a solid resource for the "strong" position: perhaps more would come out and boldly declare, "No, what you're telling us just simply is not true." Many strange ideas about atheism circulate within and around the atheistic communities that I support any project that adds to a clearer picture of the various "flavors" of atheism.
 

I will use this opportunity to reiterate (among other things) how the "Positive Atheism" of our project is not the same as the "positive atheism" you discuss. Then I'll wind it up by making a surprise admission by explaining how I can be a "strong" atheist without compromising my own understanding of liberal scientific method.

Again, thanks for the good word and the good work!

Cliff Walker

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Although we call our project "Positive Atheism," this has nothing to do with the discussion of "strong" atheism versus "weak" atheism. This is why we try to avoid the terms "positive atheism" and "negative atheism" when discussing those ideas.

In fact, we have become well-known enough in the atheistic communities that we go so far as to encourage a distinction whenever that term is used, such as:

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... is called "positive atheism" (lowercase, not to be confused with "Positive Atheism," capitalized, a set of ethical and political viewpoints originally coming from India)....

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Another point we make is that although we do not recommend to individuals whether or not to use "strong" atheism or "weak" atheism, this being a very personal matter, we are quite adamant about how to define atheism publicly, that is, in its generic sense.

When speaking about the overall, big picture of atheism as a whole, we think it is most proper to define it with language that sounds similar to the way "weak" atheism is defined for the individual. In other words, we think that any person is rightly considered "an atheist" who lacks a god-belief -- for whatever reason and however adamantly. Even those who are generally unaware of their own atheism (even those who are oblivious to god-claims at all) are, in our opinion, rightly called "atheists" if they do not have a god-belief. A person doesn't (necessarily) need to go so far as to say, "There are no gods" (or, more properly, "All god-claims are falsehood"), in order to be classed as "an atheist," in our opinion.

What this boils down to is this:

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An atheist is anybody who is not a theist.

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We think that the entire picture is much easier to talk about and to think about when theism and atheism are your two binary choices. Agnosticism and all the other so-called third alternatives or middle-ground positions are best seen as subsets covering one or the other or, in the case of agnosticism, covering both choices: theistic agnosticism and atheistic agnosticism.

However, as I mentioned above, all of this has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not any individual is a "strong" atheist or a "weak" atheist. The two discussions have very little to do with one another. They are different axes entirely, even though the language used in each sounds strikingly similar to that used in the other.

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One last thing on this topic: I recognize the problems with defining infants and imbeciles as "atheists" but I think these problems are dwarfed by the problems that occur when one tries to define atheism as "the assertion that no gods exist" (or, more properly, "the assertion that all god-claims are falsehood"). [I have written much on this subject, though I have been too weak from illness to put it together and get it posted. This may be the first time I've posted anything about this: I didn't bother looking.]

The basis for for my view is the fact that the prefix "a-" (and "an-") always means "without (the root)" in every instance that I've looked up. If atheism doesn't mean "without theism" ("a-theism"), then it is the lone exception to this rule.

An exercise that I find quite humorous is to attempt to define the prefix "a-" in terms of how most Christians define the word atheism! If we assume that they are right, that "atheism" means "the assertion that God does not exist," then the prefix "a-" alters the root to mean "a strong assertion that (the root) does not exist"! Needless to say, none of the other examples I've checked come close to that meaning!

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My biggest problem with "strong" atheism has nothing to do with the arguments; in fact, it's more of a non-problem, really. Rather, my "problem" has to do with the language one needs to use in order to express "strong" atheistic views. Less importantly, it has to do with the roles we play as theists and atheists interacting.

As a "strong" atheist, it is very difficult for me to express myself without seemingly assenting to the god-claim of the theist! In saying "God does not exist," I use the noun God in a context which implies that I accept the reality of the subject of which I am speaking. I would much prefer to speak (with theists) only in terms of the god-claim that the theist is making: "You accept the god-claim made by the Christian religion, but I have yet to grant my assent to that claim." This language makes it easier to keep the dialogue on an even keel, because both sides can accept that there is a god-claim being made, though the atheist does not (in reality) accept the terms of language that speaks of gods or God. Nevertheless, the atheist is forced (or conned or bluffed) into using this language which, in a very subtle way, puts the atheist at a grave disadvantage in any discussion of The God Question.

The bottom line, however, in this discussion, is that even though philosophically I will take the stance of a scientist, saying that all claims to knowledge are subject to being overthrown by new evidence, I will, nevertheless, live my life as if all god-claims are falsehood. I am a "weak" atheist in the technical sense, when pushed for a well-thought-out statement of my views on the matter, but I am about as "strong" as they come in the pragmatic sense of how I live my life and what is usually taking place within my mind! After all, even the scientist who (rightly) admits that the laws of gravitation are subject to revision will not make her case by stepping off the roof of a skyscraper. As hesitant as I am, in formal discussion, to state that I am 100 percent certain of my atheistic position, I am not going to be playing the "Pascal's Wager" hand any time soon!

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Finally, these arguments you plan to post will be very useful. I will see what I can do to work some or most of them into my banter here on the PAM Forum. When I do, I will be sure to reference the source of the idea, as much of this will surely be new to my presentation.

However, when Christians write to us and accuse us of "asserting that God does not exist" (their language), we will continue to blast them for failing to read our FAQ and will continue to explain that atheism itself has been traditionally seen (by the majority of atheistic writers who have ventured an opinion on the subject) in the "weak" sense, even though many individual atheists do carry their atheism as far as to make such assertions. The reason for this, of course, is that we feel very strongly that using the "weak"-sounding language to describe atheism as a whole could turn out to be one of the more powerful tools we have for reducing or even eliminating the stigma and bigotry that is thrown our way from just about every camp.

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Thank you for this: I will put your Letter and my Reply into our Letters section, which should give your page some much-deserved exposure. You also have permission to use our Reply on the Strongatheism.com domain, provided that the standard copyright notice is affixed.

Again, thank you for your note!

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine
Entering our 10th year of service
   to people with no reason to believe

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